Michael League’s Spanish Adventure

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“One thing I love about production is having to submit to a vision that isn’t 100% my own,” League said. “That ensures you have variety in your life.”

(Photo: Txus Garcia)

Before he founded Snarky Puppy, Bokanté and GroundUP Productions, before he produced a Grammy-winning album, even before he started to play the bass or guitar, Michael League was a devotee of team sports.

“Sports was my primary way to socialize,” League said late last year. By high school, he added, his military family had moved from California to Alabama to Virginia. “We met a lot of different people, experienced different parts of the U.S., and never laid down deep roots anywhere. That immediately makes you a bit light on your feet; it makes it easy to say hello and goodbye.”

League spoke, in person (a rarity during the pandemic), from his top-floor recording studio in Prats Del Rei, a Roman-era village of 500 souls in the foothills of Montserrat, an hour south of Barcelona, Spain. The windows gave an unimpeded view of a long access road from the main highway, the better for occupants a millennium ago to spot unwelcome strangers on the Catalonian plain.

“As the years go on, I see more of a relationship between how I deal with music, and how I dealt with sports,” League continued. “This person plays this role great, so let’s give them the ball in these situations. I often think of that on stage when I’m choosing a soloist, or, when I’m producing, considering who would be great to sing this chorus or play sax on a certain song. I think like a coach. The coach makes the decisions, makes the game plan off the field, and then leaves it to the players. I like that a lot.”

League implied that this ingrained predisposition to flexibility and objective assessment facilitated his creative responses to the ongoing flux of road life — six to 10 months annually, he estimated — from Snarky Puppy’s mid-’00s origins to March 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the world. That’s when League, then shuttling between Brooklyn and another Catalonian town, made his way to Cádiz, where he conceived and executed a brilliant one-man album, So Many Me (GroundUP). Meanwhile, he bought the Prats Del Rei fixer-upper, cheap, midway through 2020, supervised a gut renovation and moved in near the beginning of 2021. Already fluent in Spanish, League absorbed the Catalan language, helping him assimilate into Catalonia’s exclusive oenophilic and foodie communities — and to accumulate a formidable wine cellar.

“Michael responds to the moment; he can create something out of nothing,” observed Bill Laurance, a regular on piano in the world of Snarky Puppy, the band and collective that brought League to fame. “He’s a master of turning any disadvantage into an advantage. Even when things go wrong, he sees that as an opportunity to create a new foothold.”

As an example, Laurance cited a tour some years back when the band’s laptops, instruments and other possessions were stolen from their school bus. “I remember thinking that this tour was done,” Laurance said. “But Michael hustled. He got on Facebook and reached out to everyone we knew in the next town, and got musicians to bring instruments to the gig. We made it to the show and the tour carried on. That rallied us together. There [are] countless examples where, when our chips were down, Michael found a way to turn it around.”

A London native, Laurance was bunking in League’s guest room as they co-produced an album consisting of 16 tracks culled from 150 songs on the theme of conflict submitted by a global cohort of aspirants. The assignment came from the Swiss organization Beyond Music, whose ethos of breaking down barriers between different cultures through cross-pollinating styles on an online platform mirrors League’s preoccupations over the past decade.

In April 2021, they documented years of duo playing with an album of new music yet to be released on which Laurance plays acoustic piano and League plays oud and fretless bass. “It’s a pandemic project,” League said. “Snarky Puppy gigs had been canceled. People from the U.S. were no longer allowed to enter Europe. But the festivals were going on, especially in Italy, because their really hard-hit moment was earlier. Our Italian agent called Snarky Puppy’s manager and said, ‘Mike’s in Europe, Bill’s in Europe, [keyboardist] Justin Stanton is in Europe — can we figure something out?’”

In response, League and Stanton conceived a project with vocalist-accordionist-composer Magda Giannikou and some Spanish musicians. “Then, I thought Bill and I could do a duo where he’s not the only melodic voice,” League said. “We put together songs from our back catalogue and some covers, and drove across Italy together, eating like kings. We had so much fun that we decided to write new music and make a record. We wrote all the music over Christmas.”

That duo album is one outcome of a 12-projects-in-12-months extravaganza that League assigned himself after resettling. “A big part of moving to Catalonia was to refocus my life more as a producer than a traveling musician,” League said. “Now, after being home, that lifestyle seems exhausting. It wasn’t then, but I realized that at a certain point it would get tiring, and when it seemed inevitable that this pandemic would come and go in waves, I decided to commit to producing as much as possible without compromising quality. Artists come to me one at a time. We can do a record alone in my house or through Zoom. I figured one a month was reasonable. It was demanding, and sometimes became complicated because things got canceled and rescheduled based on travel restrictions. I’d produced 40 or 50 records, so this isn’t new for me — but I’ve grown more as a producer in 2021 than in any year of my life.

“One thing I love about production is having to submit to a vision that isn’t 100% my own. That ensures you have variety in your life — and in your creative life — and also that you learn things. You have to be ready for anything, to be an open channel. If I’m sole composer, producer and player, I control every idea. No new idea is coming from an outside source that I have to process, respect and actualize.”

As examples, League mentioned his work on three 2021 GroundUP releases. Real Life is a trans-genre program of contemporary electronic music performed acoustically by ATTACA, a Grammy-winning classical quartet, then post-produced by League and engineer Nic Hard to impart an electronic feel while using only sounds generated by the quartet. He produced and played on several tracks of Portuguese fado star Gisela João’s AuRora. He arranged all the songs for iconic Peruvian singer Susana Baca’s Palabras Urgentes (No. 1 on the Transglobal World Music Chart as we spoke), entering the musical flow on riq and dohola darbuka (Arabic tambourine and hand drum) and electric guitar.

“People like Susana and Gisela, or Eliades Ochoa from Buena Vista Social Club, or Hamid El Kasri, who’s the main Gnawa maâlem in Morocco, or [singer] Varijashree Venugopal from India, grew up playing and developed their sound in the folkloric music of their country,” League said. “Now they’re interested in finding possibilities for their music and artistry outside the box of their cultural context. So they reach out to producers not from their country, who are interested and hungry to explore different styles of music from around the world, and hopefully have enough taste and respect to carry their music to a new place without pulling its roots out of the ground.

“Not everyone has the same mission. Susana told me, ‘I want to make a record with different flavors, that sounds unique, that the whole world can hear and understand, but that goes to the Blackness of Peruvian music.’ For me, that was an interesting challenge, because I’m white and not from Peru. Gisela grew up in the fado tradition, but also went to raves. She told me repeatedly, ‘Fado is not a genre; it’s a feeling. Snarky Puppy has a fado song. I’ll tell you which song it is.’ She played it for me. So, my brief was clearly to create an electronic soundscape without losing the essence of what fado is to her and without her feeling it’s no longer fado.”

Similar imperatives inform the September 2021 release Becca Stevens And The Secret Trio (GroundUP), on which the vocalist interacts with Ara Dinkjian, an oud player of Turkish-Armenian descent; Ismail Lumanovski, a clarinetist from Macedonia; and Tamer Pinarbasi, a qānūn player from Turkey. League met the band, which is New York-based, during a several-month residence in Turkey in 2017. He booked them at his 2018 GroundUP Festival in Miami, introduced them to singer-songwriter Stevens, and suggested a recording.

He mentioned one motivation for establishing an Iberian footprint was geographic proximity to Turkey and Morocco, where he’s done quality fieldwork, developing relationships with master drum practitioners whose lessons filter into his contemporary musical production. He traced his immersive interest in Anatolian culture to matrilineal ancestors, ethnic Greeks from Smyrna (now Izmir) who were expelled by Ataturk’s forces in 1922. “I grew up eating Greek food and drinking Greek spirits — and Turks and Greeks are brothers,” he said. “The culture immediately resonated with me — then I started listening to the music. I’d visit for long chunks of time, studying the music all day, every day, reading books about Istanbul, exploring the food and drink, the people, the architecture, the vibe in the city. That’s the most natural way to learn anything. It’s how all our favorite musicians learn music — being in the midst of the culture that created the music.”

That attitude has animated League since his teens, when he was invited to play at the First Baptist Church in Vienna, Virginia. “I had a revelatory experience,” said League, then a devotee of Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and CSNY (he’s served as David Crosby’s musical director since producing and co-writing the 2016 album Lighthouse). “I grew up Catholic. I thought, ‘How could this be the same God?’ Paintings of ‘The Last Supper’ with everybody Black. It was a whole other space. I started playing at this church and joined a band called New Element, where my job was to play rock guitar solos over gospel music. The musicians, who are still my friends, exposed me to Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, whose first record, Brown Sugar, lit some fires in me.”

After enrolling at the University of North Texas, League joined “a Black quartet that played in a Black restaurant in Dallas-Fort Worth as well as in Black churches in the area.” For the next three years, he recalled: “Half my gigs were in Black churches and the other half with musicians from those churches. I played in churches three days a week; every Sunday I did three church gigs — one Methodist, one Catholic, one Baptist — in three different cities. Just going to one Black church service will change the way you think about music, but when you immerse yourself, you start noticing everything clearly. You hear the same chords we play in jazz, but they feel different. You do something in response to the preacher; you’ve rehearsed a song you were supposed to play, but you won’t play it because it’s not the right moment — you can tell the congregation doesn’t feel it.

“Then you start hearing all your jazz heroes — Ellington, Mingus, Trane and Miles — in a way you couldn’t by listening to their records, going to a white jazz school.”

League had drawn deeply from that well of lived experience at Barcelona’s Conservatori Liceu, where he gave a master class in spring 2020 and then, “when it looked like I’d be sitting at home for the next eight months,” accepted an invitation to teach one day a week. In addition to a class on “every single step of the album-making process” and another on the bass, he’s supervised a 17-piece Black American Music Ensemble, with five singers, through performances of repertoire by post-1950 Black American performers from Dallas, Philadelphia, the borough of Queens and Chicago.

“Living in a place that’s geographically, culturally and attitudinally so far away from the Black Ameican culture that created the music these students are studying, I decided to create a class that emphasizes research through performance,” League said a few days before his students presented a concert at the Voll-Damm Barcelona Jazz Festival. “In music, we don’t get as specific about geography as we should. Especially in Europe, people lack the context.

“I like to learn things and include them in my way, without trying to be Black, without trying to be Turkish — being me, with the identity that I’ve developed over the years, which is 80 percent or 90 percent forged by either Black American music that I listened to and studied growing up or white musicians whose primary influences are Black American music.

“I like to share cool shit.” DB



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On Sale Now
July 2022
Sean Jones
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